EP: Who? What? When? Where? Why? by the Weirdos
1979 BOMP! W3, BLP-4007
Favorite Track: Idle Life
I am feeling a tad nostalgic this Sunday evening so I decided to write about my favorite television show Mystery Science Theater 3000. For those uninitiated, MST3k (as it is known in shorthand) was the brainchild of Joel Hodgson, a Wisconsin-born prop comic and robotic tinker. In 1988, he pitched a show idea to Jim Mallon, production manager for the Minneapolis UHF station KTMA-TV, channel 23. Hail Eris! The show was about a janitor who had been shot into space and subjected to bad movies which he and his two robot companions make jokes about. After a year on KTMA, which evolved both in aesthetic design and comedic content, MST3k became the flag show for Comedy Channel then Comedy Central until 1996, the same year MST3k: the Movie came out. After a brief hiatus looking for a new channel, Sci-Fi Channel picked up MST3k for 3 more years before the final episode debuted on August 8th, 1999 after 197 episodes.
My own personal history with Mystery Science started one Sunday morning before my family attended 11:30 am church. Like many things in my life, my brother was the catalyst. He was flipping through the channels when he stopped at one with some shadowy figures sitting in movie seats before a movie screen, and said, “This is the show where they make fun of movies.” The episode was Warrior of the Lost World, an episode which would take me years to re-discover and oh boy when I did, and it was about halfway through when Megaweapon rolled on to the screen. The robots, Tom Servo and Crow although I did not yet know their names, started making sarcastic quips that the protagonist of the film should die and that Megaweapon was awesome despite the movie was clearly depicting Megaweapon as evil. I laughed. I did not forget the name of the show.
Soon, I became engulfed with it. I watched it whenever I could even though I often fell asleep when it was on late at night. My friends and I bought the Rhino VHS tapes of such classic episodes as Pod People, Cave Dwellers, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, and Wild World of Batwoman. It was becoming something more than a television show to me: it was the unifying point in friendship and family bonding. I have many great memories of this show, but two stand out the most. The first happened during this first immersion into the wacky, esoteric comedy of movie riffing. I had purchased the VHS tape of Wild World of Batwoman at Suncoast Videos at the Tri-County Mall when I was the tender age of 16 or 17. Some miracle happened and my brother must have been out with his friends so I had the TV set to myself. I decided to watch Wild World when my father sat down on the couch to join me. There’s no way he is going to like this, I thought to myself as the rhino in the leather jacket popped up alongside the FBI warning. The show began with a short about cheating. We were in tears by the time it was done. My dad and I do not have similar tastes in movies; he loves the tradition gangster movies like Goodfellas and the Godfather and I liked weird films like Videodrome and Kids. We do share a love of Steve Martin though. If we thought the short was too much, we were just getting started with Wild World of Batwoman. The movie is a hopeless mess from incompetent Batgirls who watch crime happen while doing nothing about it to a villain named Ratfink who wears a luchador’s mask to an atomic hearing aid to what must have been a clothing shortage or a surplus at the bikini store. We howled. Mike Nelson, the second host and head writer for the show, and the bots were relentless. And all the actor’s kept dancing in the background, foreground, any ground. Why so much dancing and surf rock? Why the blatantly racist seance scene? Or the multiple Ratfinks running around the laboratory at the end of the film? Why is a question better left unanswered concerning this movie. When I was done, my dad and I couldn’t stop talking and laughing about what we had witnessed.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 acted like a secret door opening up the world of cinema. Sometimes, the end results are just not very good and no amount of “movie magic” can save it.
But, thank goodness, Joel, Mike, Kevin, Trace, Mary Jo, Bill and Josh could. They saved these films from complete obscurity and turned them into something better than “so bad it’s good”–they were “so bad it’s perfect”.
When I graduated from high school, I did not know I would be losing a friend. Mystery Science had become some kind of boon companion for me, a friend to laugh with whether or not any of my other friends were in the room. I am sure that I watched an episode or two while in college (Pod People most likely) but I was becoming less reticent and more interested in dancing and karaoke and meeting new people. Before I knew it, the years had flown by.
2008 was a big year for me. I graduated from the University of South Carolina with a Master’s in Library and Information Science, left sunny Columbia for the grey skies of Portland, Oregon, met some famous authors, read Moby Dick, couldn’t land a job, found a job in Cincinnati (tipped off by one of my best friends) and moved to a quaint, quirky, and, actually, downright insane Ludlow Avenue where my friend and I quickly found a nice loft apartment overlooking the parking lot of a CVS. I also re-discovered MST3k. Another librarian and I were having a geek-off and both of us were prime candidates for the socially inept asylum. Both of us had a love for MST3k. She had them all on her computer and was willing to burn them for me. Don’t worry: I have purchased every single MST3k DVD I can lay my hands on since then. I have never been much of a pirate when it comes to the arts.
I introduced my friends who had never seen it. At the same time, I watched episodes I had never seen before. Years ago, I wouldn’t have said it was my favorite show. Now, I hungered for more. People responded splendidly. In fact, one friend Jessica (who always kept us informed about the Wisconsin references only a native would know) was upset when we watched an episode without her. She said, “Why don’t we watch it on Sundays?” She added, “At Mark’s. He has a liquor cabinet.” I asked him and he was perfectly fine with it. Little did any of us realize what was going to happen the next four years.
Nothing irks me more than the fact that I cannot remember what episode we watched for the first official Mystery Science Sunday. For all the notes I would take, trivia questions to create, different ways to select episodes and funny lines to memorize, I cannot for the life of me recall what it is. I have backtracked and narrowed it down using my notes to determine 14 possibilities, but that is the best I can do. Thank you Mark’s liquor cabinet. But it doesn’t matter. The seed was planted. Every Sunday at 9 pm, my friends would gather and watch MST3k. There was no better way to end the week (I have always seen Sunday as an ending and not a beginning, but it is also the best way to start the week too) than to sit in a dark room with your friends relaxing and laughing at the absurdity of the movies and the intelligent wisecracks of the comedians. Our numbers kept growing to sometimes reaching close to 20 people in one room! One personal favorite moment was during Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster and the Mad Scientists invented a guitar made out of dog toys. Zeeva, Mark’s dog, ran to the screen and licked it in eager anticipation.
At the halfway point of watching the complete series, I gave a speech. I thanked my friends for doing this, yet they did not need to be thanked. They were enjoying it just as much as I was. But I grew a tad nervous. There was so much still to watch and our lives were beginning to change. Mystery Science Sundays prevailed however. We threw costume parties, mini-marathons (with the exception of the time we watched Invasion of the Neptune Men and we all needed several drinks at the bar), trivia quizzes for prizes and the Aztec Mummy vs. Robot battle night where we wrestled each other awake from a rather soporific season one episode. Attendance was becoming smaller or uneven given the particular week. On a few occasions, only two of us brave souls could attend. Very few Sundays were ever spared, the exceptions being holidays.
My friends and I were bonding. We were growing together as a unit in laughter and continuity errors.
On October 13, 2013, we watched Danger: Diabolik. Mystery Science Sundays was over. I handed out MST3k diplomas while Pomp and Circumstances played from the speakers.
I learned a lot from those four years. My friends are amazing. They came along with my passion and dream of watching every single episode of the show. A few of us even drove up to Milwaukee and caught one of the last Cinematic Titanic shows. I even got to meet some of my heroes and get their autographs, a picture of Joel, and to hand him a thank you card which one of my friends mistook for a going away card and wrote a completely irrelevant message in it. But who doesn’t love irrelevant things more than the cast of MST3k? It was very common to hear people speak of Mystery Science Sunday as the best night of their life. One said, “even if the movie sucks, I am surrounded by my friends.”
Nothing in my life besides holidays have brought people together than MST3k. And that I have found is one of the most important elements in life. I notice people’s absences now when I watch it alone. A joke I shared a side glance with a friend doesn’t ring as loud anymore. I am not complaining about that, just stating a fact. The show is more funny in a communal environment perhaps because it was such a communal show to make. Every one was involved and a part of it. Life is fast, unexpected, full of routine and yet always in need of more spontaneous adventures, and, most importantly, life just doesn’t have enough time in it. So you have to set some time for it. For four years at 9 to 10:30 pm, I had time for it.
I am so proud to have been a part of Mystery Science Sundays. For those of you MSTies out there, I highly suggest you try it. Call some friends up, buy some beer or wine, and pick a random episode. Repeat for four years. If you have never seen the show then I suggest you do all of the above but instead of going random, try Future War or Pod People or Space Mutiny or Manos: the Hands of Fate.